Samarkand. The beating heart of Sogdiana.

“Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarqand is true – except that it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined”
Alexander the Great, 329 BC

Samarkand is perhaps the most famous city of modern Uzbekistan. The site of Samarkand was settled about 2500 BC. In times of old the city was known as Afrosiab, and also as Maracanda by the Greeks. The city was the capital of Sogdiana, and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. It subsequently grew as a trade center on the route between China and the Mediterranean region.

Even those who have no notion of the existence of Uzbekistan do somehow recall the mythical name "Samarkand". How many travelers have not come through here, since thousands and thousands of years and some have left raving accounts of the city"s splendor. There are plenty of travel stories, tales and legends and first hand accounts, no matter where you are from, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, America, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, one of your own countrymen/women may have written about Samarkand already.

Samarkand is such a multifaceted city, it is not the museum town of Khiva, no longer has the narrow winding lanes that distinguish Bukhara"s old town, Samarkand is a city with small town flair, where people really live a busy life. The fact that Samarkand was once a Russian garrison makes for all the lovely Empire style one storey houses which right now go through a real revival, in the downtown area they are being renovated everywhere and their charm is being preserved, Art Deco elements included.

Historical monuments of Samarkand

“Suddenly we caught a glimpse of painted minarets trembling in the blue astringent light and the great Madonna blue domes of mosques and tombs shouldering the full weight of the sky among bright green trees and gardens.”
Laurens van der Post, Journey into Russia, 1964

It is worth coming all this way for the Registan, the most spectacular architectural ensemble in Central Asia and the centre of Samarkand since the Mongol invasion. When you see the three great madrasas for the first time, rising petrol blue through the petrol fumes, it"s hard not to feel you have arrived somewhere significant. Registan (pronounced with a hard "g") means "place of sand"—it was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held here until early this century. This is where Tamerlane stuck his victims" heads on spikes, and where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis. But first and foremost this was a market; a riot of stalls and stallholders" shacks until Tamerlane had them flattened for his grand bazaar in 1404.

Ulug Bek Madrasa
Caravanserais for itinerant traders formed part of the square even after the construction of the Ulug Bek madrasa (1417-20) on its west side. Commissioned by and named after Tamerlane"s astronomer son, who probably lectured here, this ancient seminary is appro­priately decorated with a mosaic of stars over its enormous pishtak or portico. Every other square inch of its exterior is covered in mosaic too, using virtually every motif permitted in Islamic art. Floral ones sculpted into faience tiles around the niches and doorways, spirals up the pillars on the edges of the portico, bands of Kufic calligraphy round the inside of the iwans (the high vaulted arches in the middle of each wing), and geometric patterns known as girikhs—some of them amazingly reminiscent of computer graphics - on the minarets and the facade. (The minarets were never used by muezzins; they were ""said instead to hold up the sky” the northern one is famous for its inward lean, attributed variously to architectural genius, the weight of the sky, earthquake damage and optical illusion. Soviet engineers tried and failed to straighten it. The main door leads to a court­yard bounded by a mosque at the far end and two storeys of lecture halls and students" cells on the sides.

Sher Dor Madrasa
Two centuries were to pass before anyone found the energy to continue building round the Registan on the grand scale set by Ulug Bek. By the time the Sheibanid khan Yalangtus Bahodir took up the challenge, wind-blown sand and the detritus of endless markets had caused street level to rise three metres. This is why the Sher Dor, or "lion-bearing" madrasa (built 1619-35) seems higher than the Ulug Bek madrasa which it faces and of which it is a near-copy. (It could not be a perfect copy because, as the Koran says, "nothing is perfect except Allah.") The lions in question—said to be the ones in the Per­sian emblem— are striped, which makes them look more like tigers. You will find them chasing baby deer across the space above the principal arch, breaking the Islamic rule so rigidly adhered to in the older building: to depict no living thing. The twin suns rising over their backs are even given human faces. The Sher Dor has ribbed cupolas either side of the pishtak which the Ulug Bek madrasa lacks—possibly, again, to break any blasphe­mous symmetry—but overall, in the opinion of the "Czech specialist Edgar Knobloch, this madrasa has "cruder craftsmanship, larger patterns, over-accentuated lines, exalted floral ornaments and less harmony in colour," than the original. You can go inside, however. The cells round the courtyard produced an oversupply of student accommodation and were never full until the madrasa became a Russian hotel in colonial times. Some are now hard-currency gift shops.

Tilla Kari Madrasa
A caravanserai was pulled down on the north side of the square to make way for its biggest, newest and most extravagant building, the Tilla Kari madrasa (built 1646-59), Its 120 m-long facade is unusual in incorporating the outward-facing arched balconies of stu­dents" cells. What sets it apart, though, is the mosque on the west side of the courtyard. "Tilla Kari" means "gilded", and though there is gilding on the madrasa"s facade, it is nothing compared with the 1000 sq m of gold leaf used in the restoration of the "Golden Mosque" in 1979. It left Geoffrey Moorhouse open-mouthed: "Here was a richness of colour greater than I had ever seen anywhere before, a splendour of red beyond the opulence of rubies and a royal blue of such intensity that it would have hurt the eyes if it had been unrelieved. It was made perfect not only by the alliance with red, but by flashes of orange and dull gleamings of gold which punctuated it...
The mosque was built along with the madrasa but was always a separate institution, built to succeed Bibi Khanym—which had already collapsed—as the city"s main place of wor­ship. Women were allowed in on Fridays.
For now, the substance of what Curzon called "the noblest public square in the world" remains intact, and it may still be true that "no European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared with it, in our inability to point to an open space in any western city, that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order.

Bibi Khanym Mosque
According to legend this was the idea of Tamerlane"s Chinese chief wife Bibi Khanym, who meant to surprise him with a colossal monument on his return from his 1398-99 Indian campaign. Instead he was surprised by a love-bite on her neck, left there by the mosque"s philandering Persian architect. Tamerlane sent a platoon to seize the adulterer dead or alive, but he fled up one of the soaring minarets he had just built, leapt off the top and flew home to Persia.
The reality was scarcely less prosaic. The mosque was Tamerlane"s own idea and was to be grander than anything he had seen on his travels. It was built between 1399 and 1404 by 500 laborers and 95 elephants brought back from India, and 200 architects, artists, master craftsmen and masons from the rest of the empire. At its neared completion, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo witnessed, the infirm emperor throwing coins and meat to the workmen from his litter to goad them on, "as one should cast bones to dogs in a pit". An observer wrote of the finished mosque: "Its dome would have been unique had it not been for the heavens, and unique would have been its portal had it not been for the Milky Way." The portal was nearly 30 m high and the dome even higher. "Decorated with majolica mosaics, carved marble and painted and gilded papier mache, they stood at the west end of a marble-paved, colonnaded courtyard larger than a football pitch (130 m by I 102 m), with a minaret at each corner. The main gates opposite the mosque were made of seven different metals and were flanked by ceramic columns 50 m high. Two minor mosques looked inward from the north and south towards a giant marble Koran-holder in which rested the Osman Koran, said to be the second Koran in history, whose script was so big the imams could read it from balconies along the colonnade. The Koran-holder is still there and crawling under it is said to make barren women fertile. The Koran itself was brought to Samarkand from Damascus by Tamerlane, and sent to the Hermitage in St Petersburg by General Kaufmann in 1875 and to the Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Tashkent in 1919. The Muslim authorities in Tashkent finally recovered it in 1989.
The Bibi Khanym complex had been completed in an almighty rush and started crum­bling even before Tamerlane"s death the following year. A 17th-century earthquake destroyed more than half of it and another in 1897 left cracks in the main dome, already hit by a Russian shell in 1868. Lay-people had stopped praying here for fear of falling masonry. Now the clergy left too, and the courtyard became a cotton market. The walls had long served as a brick quarry for other building projects and the great gates had been melted down by an avaricious emir of Bukhara.
Original plans for the site were discovered in Leningrad in 1974, and five years later reconstruction began. Much brickwork has been strengthened and the courtyard walls and minor domes have been re-built, but the money has run out and the main mosque"s scaffolding and crane are now permanent features of the Samarkand skyline. There is a chance of funds from UNESCO, but not if the mosque is closed to non-Muslims as some local Muslims want.

Shah-i-Zinda is the astonishingly beautiful and magnificent architectural ensemble of ancient Samarkand. The ancient monument conceals many a secret and, like the legendary sphinx ,presents a riddle at the very start in its forty-step entrance stairway. The stairs are a test , visitors are told; if they count the same number of steps on the way up as on the way down then that is a sign of virtue. Many tourists try it out and count the ancient steps, but most are unaware that in doing so they are following profound and ancient spiritual traditions.

Over twelve centuries ago, Arab warriors and missionaries entered Samarkand, spreading word of the new Islamic faith to the residents of Sogdiana who at that time followed a number of different religions. Kusam ibn Abbas (the true uncle of the Prophet) was among these newcomers to Samarkand.

The Arabs knew that Kusam was held in high regard by the Prophet (resembling me both in heart and temper), but they could not save him from an arrow fired by one of the resisting town dwellers. Legend has it that Kusam did not die, but was saved by the grace of God, mantled by Holy Khizr and taken to jannah alive. Thus he slipped through his enemy`s fingers and his body was never found.

The story about the mysterious disappearance of Kusam ibn Abbas endured, and drew pilgrims and dervishes to the place where the grace of God once again filled holy Samarkand with its light. When visitors became too numerous, a mosque and symbolic mausoleum (cenotaph)were erected.

Soon it was proclaimed that three visits to the mausoleum of the Prophet`s cousin together with the fulfillment of various rituals and prayers could serve as a substitute for the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, if the pilgrim had no opportunity to journey to Arabia. Shah-i-Zinda became even more popular, Mecca being a journey of some 3,000 kilometers fraught with fatigue, privations and difficulties.

It was at this time that the stairway to the Shah-i-Zinda complex became a symbol of the great transformation of the human spirit, a path to God. From then on, instead of proceeding straight to the shrine, pilgrims followed a forty-day prayer ritual, which culminated in reaching the top level of the complex.

People came to Shah-i-Zinda for forty days, taking one step a day as they quietly cited verses from Koran and reflected on their intentions and on God. Some of them followed a similar path inwardly, sitting under the roof of the iwan (terrace) at the foot of the stairway. Only after forty days were they at liberty to enter the street to the upper mosque of the complex and main mausoleum.

That was in daytime at night, Muslim mystics – Sufis –took the focused citation of the names of Allah (Ruler of the Worlds, Most Merciful, Savior, Creator ) Depending on the spiritual school to which they belonged, these prayers could either be or spoken out loud.

A legend tells how Bakhauddin Nakshbandi, the leader of the most popular and powerful Sufi Order, who lived in Bukhara in the fourteenth century (over six centuries after Kusam`s miraculous escape in Samarkand), spent his forty-day prayer in Shah-i-Zinda. Daily praying to God and going up step by step, he reached the upper level of the stairway. At that moment he saw a man on white horse riding at him at full speed. The horseman , gazing attentively into the face of the master, suddenly stopped his horse and spoke with the great Sufi.

Awestruck pilgrims observing from below watched how, after the conversation, the unknown horseman swung his horse round and disappeared in the direction from which he had appeared so suddenly. According to the legend, it was Kusam ibn Abbas himself, putting the dread master to the test at the end of his voyage.

The architectural complex gained popularity among Sufis. Regular prayers began to be performed there on Thursday and Friday nights. The Russian ethnographer Sergei Maslovski (Mstislavskiy), who visited Samarkand in the late nineteenth century , wrote about how he took part in one such prayer session disguised as a dervish: at night, Sufis of the Kadiriya Order gathered in a circle at the upper mosque of Shah-i-Zinda and sang prayers, sometimes in chorus, sometimes one by one, slowly swinging, the sounds echoing under the ancient domes and arches. Maslovski described how the participants gradually fell into a trance, while the mosque was alive with an outpouring of psychic and spiritual energy, overwhelming worshipperd and creating indefinable sensations of the divine presence.

Nowadays, night prayers at Shah-i-Zinda are no longer practiced, but Sufis continue to visit the complex. Often in private, without attracting attention, they sit by the steps of the stairway, at the upper or lower mosque and silently pray, repeating divine names.

Do not disturb them. Concentrate on your own path, focusing on your own spiritual growth and intentions, as you enter one of the most revered places in Samarkand.

That very intention – to be close to God, and the spiritual principle of vigilance along on e`s path of learning – is at the root of the advice given at the stairway – ‘’Count the steps to learn about yourself.

The Ulug Bek Observatory
The grandson of Tamerlane, Ulug Bek was less interested in conquering the earth than the stars. His was the best-equipped observatory in the medieval world; a magnet for leading scientists and a centre of progressive, often heretical thought. "Where knowledge starts religion ends," was the motto of his teacher, Kazi Zade Rumi, and Ulug Bek"s quest for enlightenment led him to sponsor debates on such topics as the existence of God. This did not go down too well with Muslim orthodoxy, and among those who found his beliefs hard to stomach was his own son, who assassinated him on 29 October 1449. Shortly afterwards, religious fanatics tore down the observatory.
Ulug Bek"s astronomical observations, which put him on a par with Copernicus or Kepler, did not become known in the West until 1648, when a copy of his Catalogue of Stars was discovered in Oxford"s Bodleian Library. He had plotted the position of the moon, the planets, the sun and 1018 other stars with amazing pre­cision, and calculated the length of the year to within 58 seconds (or even less; the earth span slower then than it does now). These were some of the greatest achievements of the "non-optical" (pre-telescope) era of astronomy.
What nobody knew was where, or quite how, Ulug Bek had worked. Then in 1908, after years spent studying ancient manuscripts, a Russian primary school teacher, amateur archaeologist and former army officer called Vladimir Viatkin unearthed the lower portion of a giant sextant on Kukhak Hill beside the road to Tashkent. It was one of the major finds of the 20th century.
The original sextant was a perfect arc of marble-clad brick, 63 metres long with a radius of 40 m, calibrated in degrees and minutes, decorated with the signs of the zodiac and aligned with one of the earth"s meridians. Observations and measurements were made with an astrolabe mounted on metal rails either side of the sextant. What survives, com­plete with calibrations and fragments of rail, is the lower section of the arc, set in a deep rock trench to minimize disturbances from earth tremors. The arc originally continued upwards above the trench inside a round, three-storeyed observatory at least 30 m high. Traces of its foundations are all that remain. The top two floors were arcades used as solar and lunar calendars. Ulug Bek probably used the ground floor as a summer residence. There is a small museum on Uzbek astronomy and the opening of Tamerlane"s tomb. The astronomy section includes an old engraving of great astronomers in which Ulug Bek sits alongside Copernicus and Galileo dressed as a Cos­sack, whose garb was the most eastern-looking the engraver could envisage. The modest grave near the entrance to the sextant is Viatkin"s; he was buried here in accordance with his will.

Gur Emir Mausoleum
Tamerlane died in February 1405 on his way to China with an invasion force of 200,000 men. His body was perfumed with rose-water, musk and camphor, placed in a coffin dec­orated with pearls and dispatched—in the dead of night to avoid unsettling his troops—back to Samarkand 400 miles away. He was buried in the mausoleum he had built for his grandson Mohammed Sultan, who had died fighting in Turkey in 1403. It became known as Gur Emir—the Ruler"s Tomb.
The first version of Gur Emir, completed in 1404, was not grand enough for Tamerlane. He had its famous ribbed canteloupe dome, and the drum on which it stood, rebuilt on the scale of the Bibi Khanym mosque in two weeks flat. The outer dome is now 32 m high and the inner 18 m, with a complex system of supporting struts between them. (Round the drum beneath the outer dome runs a kufic inscription 10 m high: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." Under this, in an octagonal hall, lie six cenotaphs of white marble and one of jade. The marble ones commemorate, among others, Mohammed Sultan the grandson; Shah Rukh, Timur"s youngest son and heir, who ruled the rapidly shrinking Timurid empire from Herat in modern Afghanistan; Ulug Bek, who ruled Samarkand as Shah Rukh"s viceroy; and Mir Said Berekh, sage, descendent of the Prophet and Tamerlane"s spiritual mentor.
The seventh cenotaph is Tamerlane"s. As he lay dying he had whispered, "Only a stone, and my name upon it," but he got what was then the biggest slab of jade in the world. Some say it was sent from the mountains of Chinese Turkestan by a Mongolian princess; others that Ulug Bek brought it from there himself in 1411. The Persian invader Nadir Shah tried to carry it away in 1740 but it broke in two so he left it alone. Cemented back together, it normally appears black in the low light that filters through the four fretted arches round the hall. Only direct sunlight through the east door in the early morning brings out its true green.
No expense was spared on the hall itself. Its walls are covered with hexagonal green alabaster tiles up to a band of once-gilded marble at head height. Higher up, bands of cal­ligraphy frame clusters of stalactites and blue and gold geometric panels. Laid end on end, the gilding on the underside of the dome would stretch for 3 km. Below the ceno­taphs, 3m down in a crypt closed to the public, lie the real graves and tombstones.

Tamerlane"s Ghost
Tamerlane took a while to settle in his tomb, according to Hans Schiltberger, a German who had served at his court: "After he was buried the priests that served the temple heard Timur howl every night for a year. Finally, they went to his son and begged that he set free the prisoners taken by his father in other countries, especially those craftsmen he had brought to his capital to work. He let them go, and as soon as they were free Timur did not howl any more.
Now that he lay at peace he was not to be disturbed. Legend had it that, engraved on the underside of his tombstone, was the epitaph, "If I am roused from my grave the earth will tremble". He was not roused for five and a half centuries. Then a distinguished Russian anthropologist, Mikhail Gerasimov, obtained permission to exhume the body. In order not to offend local sensibilities Gerasimov entered the crypt in secret, on the night of 22 June 1941. He opened the coffin around 3 am - and within minutes an assistant burst in with the news that Kiev and Minsk were being bombed and that Hitler"s armies had invaded Russia. Gerasimov"s examination, which confirmed that Tamerlane had indeed been lame from a wound to his right leg, took nearly two years. Within the days of the skeleton being reentered, the Germans surrendered after losing nearly a million men at Stalingrad.


Imam al-Bukhariy

Abu Abdullo Muhammad ibn Ismail Imam al-Bukhariy was born in 810 in Bukhara, and young Khuja Ismail showed a precocious talent for memorizing the traditions of Mohammed. At 16 he accompanied his mother and brother on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Al Bukhariy was set there on his chosen task of searching the Islamic world for Hadiths. His 97 books masterpiece took 16 years to compile over 600,000 traditions, gathered from over 1,000 sheikhs. In addition to Muhammad’s life, Al-Bukhariy explained the creation of paradise and the hell. Centuries of work have confirmed Al-Bukahriy’s work as the most reliable and respected collection of Hadith. The mausoleum is 25 kilometers north of Samarqand in Khuja Ismail village. Under the initiative of the Uzbekistan government this mausoleum was renovated in 2000 year. As Ismail Bukhariy himself never attached to a particular school, his mausoleum attracts pilgrims from all around the world.